Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs spaces still paralyzed by pandemic

Months after many arts spaces in Los Angeles reopened with safety measures in place, all facilities overseen by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) remain closed, with no timeline for reopening or even a roadmap for Getting There. Interviews with several current and former DCA employees point to a leadership crisis and lack of transparency that has left many of these community-focused spaces operating with very little support.

Lukas Geronimas was excited about his first institutional solo show at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG) when it was confirmed in late 2019. Founded in 1954, the gallery is located in Barnsdall Park in East Hollywood, next to Frank Lloyd Wright . the iconic 1921 Hollyhock House, which became the city’s first Unesco World Heritage Site in 2019.

The gallery closed at the onset of Covid-19 in early 2020, and Geronimas’ exhibition was postponed from summer 2020 to summer 2022. Then to summer 2021, as cases of Covid -19 was shrinking, Geronimas learned that his exhibit would open this fall. When Covid-19 cases started to rise again in early fall, LAMAG stuck to the new schedule despite still being closed to the public.

“If they were adamant about the integrity of the work, they would have waited until they had real answers. [about reopening]says Geronimas, whose sculptures explore art history and institutional criticism. “It seemed crazy that they couldn’t find a way to get a limited number of people through safely.”

His show ran from October 14 to December 12 without the public ever being able to see him in person. Geronimas emailed LAMAG and DCA staff decrying the closed show as “only theatre”, but received no satisfactory response. “I wanted to know who had the authority to postpone the shows until the space could open,” he says. “Nobody had that ability. It was just in-game mechanics, totally Kafkaesque.

This may be because the department’s machines are largely unmanned. Former LAMAG director Isabelle Lutterodt left last December to become deputy director of the California African American Museum, and DCA executive director Danielle Brazell abruptly resigned a month earlier (Daniel Tarica is acting executive director ). LAMAG also lost its two curators: Steven Wong left in early 2021 to become director of the Vincent Price Art Museum; Ciara Moloney returned to Ireland shortly before. No curators have been hired to replace them, in part because of a hiring freeze across all city departments that was lifted last October.

“The Department of Cultural Affairs is working closely with its staff and city agencies to reopen DCA sites across the city,” a department spokesperson wrote via email. “Due to the recent variant of Covid-19, DCA continues to proceed with caution to ensure the safety of staff and visitors.”

Lack of communication

In addition to LAMAG, DCA administers nearly two dozen community and performing arts spaces in the city, including the Watts Towers Arts Center and the William Grant Still Arts Center. Many of them are the only art spaces in their communities and offer art classes, exhibitions and performances. DCA employees contacted by The arts journalalmost all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed frustration at a lack of communication and long-standing support from DCA and City Hall, patterns they say have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Last year we were told July, then it went to September, then January, now they say maybe March or April [to reopen]says Ruben Amavizca, director of the Frida Kahlo Theater, a DCA partner organization and one of the only spaces in the city focused on Spanish-language theater. “If at least we could have guidelines, ‘This is what’s going to happen, this is what you need for reopening’, but we don’t have that.”

In addition to the lack of communication about reopening guidelines, DCA employees say normal funding streams have been delayed, making it more difficult to create online programs in the interim.

“We were told to pivot online, but our budgets weren’t approved,” says a current DCA employee. “We really pushed ourselves, tried to do what we could, but we weren’t getting any support from Cultural Affairs.” DCA’s budget for fiscal year 2021-22 is $20.3 million.

“The department has been working throughout the pandemic to ensure budgeted funding is available for DCA to provide arts and culture programming,” the DCA spokesperson wrote via email. “However, due to citywide spending controls implemented at various times during the pandemic, the department has been constrained in its use of these resources.”

James C. Tibbs